With more than 800,000 tickets sold, Venice's most recent Biennale Arte shattered its previous records, with attendance up by 35 per cent compared with pre-pandemic levels. The National Pavilion UAE, which included an exhibition by Emirati artist Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, Between Sunrise and Sunset, drew in more than a third of these guests — setting its own record of 277,203 visitors.
Reflecting the biennale's theme, The Milk of Dreams — questioning the representation of bodies and their metamorphoses, and the connection between bodies and earth — Ibrahim's exhibition included 128 sculptures, exploring the way sunlight traverses over the mountains of his home, Khorfakkan. Together, they form a single work, with biomorphic sculptures clustering together in undulating colour and movement.
Laila Binbrek, director of National Pavilion UAE — La Biennale di Venezia, says the narrative and presentation of Ibrahim's exhibition resonated emotionally with visitors from around the world at the art exhibition.
"Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim has been a practising artist over the last four decades, and is a key member of a group of experimental, conceptual artists who have led the vanguard of the visual art scene in the UAE since the 1980s. He is an artist who has a deep and intimate relationship with his home town of Khorfakkan and this relationship is clearly expressed in all his work," Binbrek tells The National.
"The exhibition presented at the pavilion is a direct homage to Mohamed’s home town and his ongoing dialogue with the mountains and the light that reflects on it; this relationship was easily relatable to anyone who visited our pavilion."
Binbrek says it is always rewarding to see another story from the UAE being presented on the global platform of La Biennale di Venezia, as the country's creatives stand alongside their international peers. Commissioned by the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation and supported by the Ministry of Culture & Youth, the UAE's National Pavilion has a permanent space at the Venice Biennale’s Arsenale — Sale d’Armi.
"Our consistent presence at La Biennale means each year we have an opportunity to build on those untold stories, and this year was no exception. It was interesting to see audiences, who had seen previous UAE pavilions, discover and absorb Mohamed’s work, and in some cases be able to put it in context to the overall story we have been building on over the years."
Binbrek says the success of this year's biennale was a clear indicator of the public's appetite to return and come together again. "The international art exhibition saw 58 national participations, including five from the region, including the Sultanate of Oman in their inaugural participation, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria."
Although the biennale closed last month, National Pavilion UAE is still offering virtual tours of the exhibition online at nationalpavilionuae.org. The pavilion has also released an accompanying publication, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim: Between Sunrise and Sunset / Works 1986-2022, which pieces together years of in-depth research and personal interactions with the artist.
One of the book's editors is the exhibition's curator Maya Allison, executive director and chief curator of the New York University Abu Dhabi Art Gallery. Allison says that the artist's work played a formative role in developing the UAE's "thriving creative scene". "What he has brought to Venice for the UAE Pavilion shows his complete commitment to exploration, curiosity and our interconnectedness through art — the very characteristics that I love about the UAE's art scene," she says.
Ibrahim, meanwhile, says it was a great honour to represent his country at "one of the most international and prestigious platforms for the arts".
"It was a huge responsibility to have my work act as a conduit through which the world could see the diversity and dynamism of the Emirati arts scene.
"I chose to highlight my authenticity in my artwork to encourage the next generation of artists in the UAE to embrace their originality and never lose their individuality as they go on to become the future of arts in the Emirates."
Cecilia Alemani, who curated the wider biennale, says it was a challenge organising the event during the pandemic. "I have conceived this exhibition remotely, with hundreds of studio visits done on Zoom with artists from all over the world. Very few artists were able to come and do site visits," Alemani says.
"Nobody knew if the artworks would get to Venice on time. Even if now things seem to have returned to a sort of normalcy, we all know it was an extraordinary period and that it took more than two years to get to this point. The fact that this exhibition could open on time back in April is still somewhat miraculous."
Alemani says the 800,000 visitors "demonstrate that art has the power to foster participation, and that after so many months of isolation, people want to celebrate and see art in person, in a joyful and communal experience shared with many friends, families, colleagues and art lovers".
"In times like this, as the history of La Biennale di Venezia clearly shows, art and artists can help us imagine new modes of coexistence and infinite new possibilities of transformation.”
Now that Biennale Arte is over, Binbrek says the UAE Pavilion is excited about the coming architectural biennale.
"We look forward to next year’s exhibition at Biennale Architettura 2023, which will be curated by Faysal Tabbarah, associate dean and associate professor of architecture at the American University of Sharjah. Tabbarah and his team aim to explore the relationship between architecture and arid landscapes in the UAE and reimagine them as spaces of abundance and productivity.”
Scroll through images of this year's Biennale Arte below